When most people talk about the test for college admission, they usually mention SAT general test or ACT. After that, they may mention AP exams. Seldom have you heard people talk about SAT Subject tests, yet many universities have departments that require at least one SAT subject test to be submitted when applying. So, why does any department even requires a SAT subject test scores when there are AP exams?
There are crucial differences between AP and SAT subject test which make it necessary for any college applicants to carefully consider how they will approach them, both. AP exam is very demanding and students typically get only one shot at the test. The students can try multiple times at a SAT subject test, and unlike AP, they have much more freedom to choose when to take the subject test. Furthermore, a student need not be enrolled in an AP class to adequately prepare for a SAT subject test, thus it offers a great alternative to those who seek to limit the number of AP courses they will take, in order to not overburden themselves. Unlike AP exams, SAT subject test mostly requires knowledge obtainable by the end of Junior years for most high school students. This is important for college application as most students will be taking the AP courses during their Senior years, thus they won’t be able to use the AP Exam scores to bolster their college application. SAT subject tests may be the best way to demonstrate a student’s college readiness to an admission officer.
It also is worth noticing the difference in the frequency of the perfect scores. The AP exam is in 5 points maximum scale, and in many tests, more than 20% of the students report a “perfect” 5/5 in the AP exam.
In contrast, SAT subject test is in 800 points maximum scale, and in the majority of the tests, less than 5% of the students get the 800/800. In subjects like Literature and Chemistry, it might be harder to get an 800 in SAT subject test compared to 5 in AP exam. The college admission officers know well what the distributions of the scores are, thus will not consider 5/5 from AP in the same light as 800/800 in SAT subject tests.
In many ways, SAT subject tests are just as useful in preparing for college as AP courses. AP courses expose students to materials normally taught at the college. Since students have to learn many year worths of high school materials as well as college materials in a single year, the students are not expected to know everything there is in an AP Exam. Recent released information says a student can get 5/5 mark in AP while receiving less than 70% of the maximum possible scores in an AP Exam(If more details are desired, click here).
To get an 800 in any SAT Subject Tests, you need at to receive at least 80% of maximum RAW score in any test, and this is a score where you get 1/4 of points deducted for wrong guess, thus you usually have to answer more than 90% of the questions correctly. If AP exams test how much college materials a student already knows, SAT subject tests examine how completely a student knows the high school materials.
To further illustrate the difference between these two test achievements, consider the following. A student with AP score of 5 may impress his/her college professor with knowing something already, but may also disappoint them by not knowing what the college professor assumed everyone should already know before arriving at his class. A student with SAT subject score of 800 might not know the college subject material in advance, but will not disappoint the professors by failing to answer something professors consider to be fundamental. Someone with AP Score of 5 may fluctuate wildly in test scores for the college course of similar content, while someone with SAT subject test score of 800 will likely perform steadily and adequately, provided that both students put efforts similar to other students in the same course.
In college, more advanced the course becomes, more important the knowledge of the fundamentals. Even if SAT Subject Test score didn’t help a student enough to get the student get admitted into a college program of their choice, it will help them graduate from whatever college program they enter. At the minimum, preparing for SAT Subject tests will minimize a student’s need to take a “remedial class” after entering a college, thus improve his chance of graduating within 4 years, saving great amount of money for everyone.
On top of everything said above, SAT Subject Test is a great way to bolster one’s college application, and also a way to cover up for a mistake. For example, if someone scored mere 3/5 on AP Chemistry, he can try to cover it up with a score of 780/800 on SAT chemistry subject test. Also, consider following scenario. Put yourself as someone in charge of admission for an Electrical Engineering Department. On one hand, you have a straight A student with 2200 on SAT General Test, has 5/5 in AP Calculus BC, but no other AP scores since he is taking them in Senior years, and also no other SAT subject Test scores. On the other hand, you have a student who has high school grades distributed between B+ to A+, with 1800 on SAT General ( 510 on Reading and Writing, 780 on Math ), but has 750 or above in SAT Subject tests in Math Level II, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and World History , and 5/5 on AP Physics B ( the non-calculus one) and a 5/5 on AP Calculus AB during his junior year . The first student did what is expected of a typical student, but his application just doesn’t have that “engineering flavor”. The second student must be a math/science geek whose difficulty with English interfered with his grades, and this probably have denied him a chance to take better AP courses as well. Despite that 400 point difference in SAT General Test, and some deficit in GPA, an admission officer for an Engineering department will take a very good look at the second students, and may often pick him instead of the first student.
The comparative ease at which a student may prepare and take SAT Subject test makes it a crucial part of the plan for the college admission process. It is a test that is easy to take, and one that can be taken often. While it is a hard test to receive a perfect score, very good score will bolster any student’s college application. Even if the student don’t end up with score that may help them in college application, the work that goes into preparing for these tests will help them during their college life and probably long afterward as well. Therefore, every student should try to master at least one of these SAT subject tests every year after reaching 9th grade. If they do, they will be rewarded well, sooner or later.
There exists a debate about whether it is worth going to famous universities.
Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be
Actually, it can matter where you go to college
Both of the writing above has good points. What is beyond debate, however, is that WHAT you study in college is very important. AND, what should concern most students and their parents is that it is not easy to be admitted to the college that teaches what the student wants or needs, nor to graduate in four years.
Every student has aspiration of their own. If they don’t have some idea about their future, it really is important to at least decide what they will major in when they get to college. If they choose a wrong major for their future, they will likely waste years of their life and a great amount of money until they move to the right course of study or job for their eventual career choice. Therefore, it is important that a student narrows down his field of pursuit as much as possible, as early as possible, while studying some things on the side in case he needs to change the field.
Every major for every school has their own set of qualities they look in a student. Many majors may not accept a student with very high test scores and grades if he doesn’t have scores or grades from certain key subjects they consider to be very important. In high school years, you cannot take every subject tests and AP exams there is. Realistically, a student can handle one or two subject tests and one or two AP courses within a year. It is important that a student makes plans for which subject tests and which AP courses he will target in order to best utilize his time, and maximize his chances for the primary and secondary field of choice.
Just taking those tests and AP Courses isn’t enough for most colleges, especially if you wish to enter into a school that has generous financial assistance, specialized study programs, or ones that have some faculty members who is renowned in the field of interest. Any school that has some positive reputations will require the students to have a very high score in certain key tests or subjects. If a student has some impressive accomplishments in certain key areas or subjects, even highly selective schools may be forgiving of some low scores in subjects or test they don’t consider to be as important. Therefore, students should strive to have at least two subject test scores or AP exams score that is very impressive if they wish to be accepted in a department for major of their choice in any colleges.
Thus, students and parents should remind themselves that all these discussions about college’s name value does not mean they can simply pay minimum attention to the college application process. All the parties of the discussion still emphasize hard work, good preparations, and need to learn as much as possible. Doing well in key subjects relevant to the major of student’s choice will also help him do much better after he is accepted into college. Think about how much more money additional year in college will cost because the student haven’t mastered all he could about the core subjects while he was in high school. If a student seeks to learn more than what is taught in high schools in the core subjects, chances are that the student will be more likely to graduate from college with degree of their choice in timely manner, greatly saving money while improving his future prospect, no matter which college they attended. For these and many, many other reasons, it still is important to study hard in high school, and people should not be ashamed of seeking help, nor be afraid of challenging themselves to learn new subjects. Think about this: Einstein, after he published the papers for which he got his Nobel Prize (papers on photoelectric effect and Brownian motion), he needed to receive help in math from his friend in order to write his papers on General Relativity. If someone as brilliant as Einstein needed help with math, we shouldn’t think bad of asking for help in studying when needed.
1. The grade when a student decides his field of study
I have recommended 8th grade as the year a student should make a decisions about his future. Some may consider this as being too restrictive. While I agree that it is possible to postpone the decision about field of study or career choice of the student, it should be noted that longer a student waits, less an option he will have. Below are rough sketch of where the limits likely will be if the decision is made at that time.
9th grade : It may already have become too late to go on a path of sending in some key AP Exam scores to the college when the student reaches 12th grade. The student will need to either find a path to obtain college credits or try other tests that can substitute for those AP Exam scores in the college application, or plan to take the AP during 12th grade and receive excellent recommendations from the teacher in charge of the AP subject.
10th grade : It may be too late to find a path to take the key AP subjects before graduating from High School. Alternatives must be used. If the student wants to receive some college credits in key subjects before college application, the student may need to consider receiving supplementary instructions from private instructors in order to prepare himself for the college course works.
11th grade : The choice of majors the student can pursue starts to narrow by this point. Trying for some College credits may now be too hard. The best alternatives are SAT subject tests, and some AP courses in 12th grade that can be considered as foundation AP course for that Key AP subject(s) the student no longer can reach.
12th grade : The student may no longer have much of a choice for the major to pursue if he wants to go to decent college/university . Either the student can choose a major that can maximize his chance of being accepted at a college/university reachable with his grades and scores, or have to chart a path through community college or easily accepted colleges and hope to be able to transfer out of there to better universities in order to pursue the major of his/her dream.
7th grade or below : It simply is too soon. The student may be better served seeking job or volunteer experiences at this point.
2. How hard is it to meet the 9th grade objective of “at least one AP Exam, SAT subject test, or college course relevant to the primary major” ?
It isn’t too hard. Most 9th grade student will be taking at least one science course and one history class in school . If the student pick one of them as a special focus and devote a year in studying for SAT subject test, he/she can easily ace that subject test
3. Why Two objective at the 10th grade?
This is to let you have easier time when you become 11th grade. Finishing two objectives during 10th grade will broaden your possibilities. These objectives are easily met through some AP courses or SAT subject test preparations that will help lead into the KEY AP course you will take in 11th or 12th grade. Many 10th grade students will have classes in science, math, history, literature, and foreign language at this year. They all have their own SAT subject tests, so it is best to finish these SAT subject tests here.
4. Why back to only one objective at the 11th grade?
This is to leave room to make up for some objectives student missed from 9th or 10th grade, and also to let the student concentrate on the key AP course or preparation for that important college class. Much of the student attention will be taken up by the key AP courses. Doing one more test preparation or AP in addition to all this may be hard, but is worth pursuing. Therefore, I am suggesting was at least one Subject test, AP, or college course related to the tertiary objective in addition to any AP course works needed for the Primary major of choice, and hope the student can handle the load.
When to prepare for college application?
I have been in College preparation service for many years and I noticed that about the half of the students were already in or about to enter 11th grade when they first contacted my college prep workplace. Since about quarter of the students were in or about to enter 10th grade when they first contacted my workplace, there seems to be sort of exponential decrease associated with time of their contact and amount of time left for college preparation. Sadly, this means more than 75% of the students had contacted us a little too late to fully prepare for studying in the college. For reasons I will write below, the best time to start preparing for college is not 11th, not 10th, not even 9th, but 8th grade. If you are already 9th grade, you really need some help in order to catch up to your competitors.
While people talk a lot of college applications, the real focus should be college preparation, and this isn’t a mere lip-service to public education. All the data suggest that only about half the students are able to graduate from college within 4 years, and some are able to only because colleges aggressively intervened to boost freshman and sophomore’s academic competency. The main reason is that most 6th to 12th grade class can’t give students sufficient time for them to master many difficult concepts and questions you might run into, and many are amazed how difficult a problem can be even though you can solve it with knowledge you obtained before 9th grade. Many schools struggle to find the right balance between instilling creativity and ability to tackle very hard questions, and often what lose out is the opportunity to experience very tough questions that requires lengthy derivation and explanations. This is why many colleges wants to see SAT subject test scores and AP scores, hoping high scores in these standardized test means the student had adequate exposures to complicated time consuming questions in the subject.
Note that in the last paragraph, I wrote that colleges want to see the score. The college application deadline is at about half-way point for the senior years. You CANNOT send 12th grade AP scores to college for them to consider it, because you will have the AP Exam long after knowing which college accepted or rejected you. The students must seek to finish all the important AP by the end of 11th grade, or have something equivalent for it. Here another difficulty arises because most prestigious school’s STEM departments really loves students that received a “5” in AP Calculus BC . Science and Engineering majors would love it even more if the student received a “5” in AP Physics C . The trouble is, these are sort of “highest tier” AP, that is AP courses that builds up on another AP courses. The student must have a plan in place by the time they select their 10th grade classes in order to complete these AP courses by 11th grade, or if that isn’t possible, identify and pursue alternatives that will earn them recognition similar to receiving a “5” in these AP courses. The best alternative is taking Calculus or Physics classes in nearby universities and receiving an “A” in it. You run into interesting irony of partially attending a college in order to fully attend the college. Liberal Arts major also has AP classes that is of particular interest to them, and it will take very careful planning and some arm wrangling of school officials in order to finish it by 11th grade.
For many, it may be hard to do the AP classes or classes in college for various reasons. Then, the student must pursue as many SAT subject tests as possible, hoping to impress college admission officials with deluge of good test scores. The best time to start taking SAT subject tests is actually 9th grade, since there is good overlap of SAT subject test materials, and contents in classes students will take at 9th grade. It is impossible to take all the SAT subject tests, so the students have to have a plan by the time they enter 9th grade. This is why students need to start preparing from 8th grade. For 75% of the students I worked with, they have to overcome the fact that they are at least a year behind in college preparations compared to many other students interested in the same school they are.
Now, how about even earlier, like 7th grade? At this point, you have to wonder whether it may be too early. Young people needs to experience lots of things, and often don’t have enough knowledge to make good decision about themselves. Up to 7th grade, it is best to give the students as diverse an experience as possible, and make sure there isn’t any noticeable deficit in skill and knowledge in math, language, and science. When the student enters 8th grade, he will need to make a decision that will shape his future, and it is better he can do this after having as varied an experience as possible.
What should the student do at 8th grade? There is one thing that is of most importance at this time: Deciding what the student will major in. Some might wonder about students wanting to change their majors after entering college. What student should do is have a primary plan and a backup plan in case he wants to change his major. If a student wants to be a medical doctor, but is also interested in history, he should consider becoming a pre-med student as a history major. Being a math major at the beginning can be a great choice because it isn’t too hard to switch from being a math major to an engineering major. Some switches are harder, like switching from English literature major to Physics major, so it might be better for students to aim for being physics major and get as much English Literature in as time allow in case switch is desired. It is possible for a student to come up with a plan for his study in college that has flexibility built into it, but this is possible only if the students comes up with the plan soon enough. Once we know what student will study in college, everything else falls in place. The major of his choice will drive what AP courses and SAT subject tests the student will pursue, and where to turn to if taking those AP courses by 11th grade is not feasible.
I strongly advise NOT think about which college to apply to before the end of 11th grade. If the student accumulated high AP scores and SAT subject test scores in the subjects relevant to the major the student wishes to pursue by the end of 11th grade, his chance of being accepted into prestigious institutes will be very good. If his scores are below what is desirable, the student still can embark on a path where he will enter colleges or universities of lesser renown, then use good grades, good GRE scores, and multiple achievements in order to enter very prestigious graduate schools or earn a chance to work under some famous professors. If he diligently pursue the study in desired field, sooner or later, he can enter institutions of high acclaim. It is where the student is at the age of 25 that is more important than what school he enters in at age of 18.
Therefore I advise the students to widen experience when they are young, and start college preparation early. Below is a simplified timeline that I recommend.
Birth to 4th grade : Concentrate on Academic fundamentals and depth. Must establish very good understanding of Math, Writing, Reading, Science, and Logic.
5th to 7th grade : Experience as many different things as possible. Try to work at a work place that allows youth employment. Volunteer for different causes. Do things the student never did before. Go visit new places. Meet and talk with different people. The student will need to understand diverse challenges associated with different career path.
8th grade : Decide on what the student will major in college. Choose about three majors and decide which one is the primary goal, which one is the secondary, and which one is the fall back plan in case the first two don’t work out. Decide what AP subjects, SAT subjects, college courses, and special experiences that will be most relevant to the three majors of the choice, and make a plan to pack in as many of them as possible during 9th to 11th grade. Be wary of the priority in the choice of major so that more than half of the subjects and courses are relevant to the primary major, and at least a quarter of them are relevant to the secondary choice. One or two subjects or courses should be relevant to the third choice as well.
9th grade : Try to have at least one AP Exam, SAT subject test, or college course relevant to the primary major be done this year.
10th grade : Try to have at least one AP Exam, SAT subject test, or college course relevant to the primary major and also another one relevant to the secondary major be completed within this year
11th grade : Try to have at least one AP Exam, SAT subject test, or college course relevant to the third choice be completed here. If possible, select one that is relevant to not just the third choice of the major, but also the primary or secondary choice of the major as well.
12th grade : Plan on taking all ACT AND SAT test(except for one) between start of 12th grade to the college application deadline. Try to take at least one SAT subject test relevant to the primary choice of the major. Start forming a path for graduate school or professional school if needed.
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